A kibbutz in northern Israel is up in arms against a decision by the Israel Land Authority to grant some of its pasturage to a convicted cattle thief, calling it unjust, an insult to every honest cattle rancher and a blow against Zionism.
The ILA decision, which was made in December but only recently became public, transferred 480 dunams (118 acres) of pasturage formerly leased by Kibbutz Moran in the Lower Galilee to Wahib Lahayeb, a Bedouin cattle herder. Lahayeb received another 200 dunams (50 acres) from neighboring groves for a total of 700 dunams (168 acres).
Lahayeb, who keeps 50 head of cattle in the area, was found guilty in 2015 of stealing cattle, invading pastures, conspiracy to commit a crime, obstructing legal proceedings and assaulting a police officer after he stole six calves from a farmer living near Had Ness in the Golan Heights. He has also been arrested in connection with other cattle thefts.
In an explanatory letter provided to JNS, the ILA said that Lahayeb “met the threshold conditions and submitted a complete application for a grazing permit.”
His past “shouldn’t be a decisive consideration” since his main livelihood is cattle herding, and “so long as the state rejects his request for a cattle-herding permit, he will be left with no choice but to trespass or be without a livelihood,” said the ILA.
(An ILA spokesperson told JNS that driving their decision was the hope that Lahayeb would stop grazing his cattle in neighboring pasturages, including those of the kibbutz.)
Aviha Elster, manager of Kibbutz Moran’s cattle, said the ILA decision ignores Lahayeb’s character and all-too-casually dismisses his criminal past.
“He has been the target of the Agricultural Crimes Unit. He has an indictment against him,” said Elster.
Noting that a year or two ago, there was an incident in which Lahayeb let his goats invade the Arbel Nature Reserve near Tiberias, Elster told JNS, “The state doesn’t have a shred of organizational memory. It’s unable to say, ‘Two years ago, an incident happened here. A year ago, an event happened there.’ If it could it would conclude, ‘How can we give such a person land?’”
The ILA argues that it has taken Lahayeb’s background into account, noting that it has placed “restrictive conditions” on him, such as the requirement to “establish an electric fence that will prevent his herd from crossing into the adjacent area of Kibbutz Moran.”
Elster finds the claim laughable, saying, “They’re treating Lahayeb as if he’s a normal citizen, who cares about the rules,” but “he believes he can do whatever he likes, that he’s the boss.”
He called the fence a particularly “lunatic” condition, because “Lahayeb isn’t the kind to build fences; he tramples them. … He lets his cows go where there’s food. He’ll make excuses. ‘The gate opened. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.’”
Adding insult to injury, Elster recently built a fence in the section of land transferred to the Bedouin. When he received the ILA’s new lease contract for the land, he found “they had left me with the bill for the fence that’s no longer on my property. I paid for his new fence.”
‘A prize for breaking the law’
Kibbutz Moran has leased its pasturage for 40 years. It covers about 10,000 dunams (the ILA puts it at exactly 9,985 dunams, or 2,467 acres). That’s one reason the ILA says the kibbutz can forgo the 480 dunams handed to Lahayeb, who has no land of his own.
“It’s true that he doesn’t have land,” said Elster. “So what? Does that mean someone can buy 50 cows and say, ‘I need land’? What they’re saying is if you’re strong enough, if you’re determined enough, bring cows, put them in a yard, let them into the neighbor’s field and declare, ‘I want land.’ It’s saying there’s no proper administration. Come and establish facts on the ground.”
Lahayeb isn’t even from the area, said Elster.
“He’s not even really our neighbor. He’s from Wadi al-Hammam. He decided that he would take this area for himself, and he’s been here for 10 to 15 years. He herds his cattle in this area but, of course, the land doesn’t belong to him.”
He added, “They’ve given him a prize for breaking the law.”
The kibbutz started with 13,000 dunams (3,212 acres) for its cattle, an area reduced by the ILA over time (according to Elster, pasturage is at the bottom of the agency’s list of land-use priorities). While he said he could accept the loss of land in other cases (one time the Israel Electric Corporation required land), to lose it to someone like Lahayeb is intolerable.
“Outside of the fact that they took our land, they did us a serious moral injury. They’re saying you can work hard to protect your land, fight with your neighbors, break your teeth, but, in the end, we’ll give a piece of your land to a criminal,” said Elster. “It’s shattered our morale.”
Nor is he in doubt regarding exactly who is to blame: Tamir Barkin, director of the ILA’s northern region.
“It is clear to me and known to everyone in the administration that this was decided solely by Tamir Barkin, and [that] he didn’t ask or consult anyone around him. He acted like a king and decided,” said Elster.
For its part, the ILA says the process involved numerous actors.
“Every request that meets the threshold conditions is brought to a discussion before a dedicated committee which consists of professionals and other representatives of various bodies such as the moshavim movement, the kibbutz movement, the farmers’ association, Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, the unit for the national supervision of open areas and others,” it said.
Elster isn’t buying it, however. He said this is another instance of a phenomenon recently in the news regarding the power of Israeli civil servants to unilaterally make important decisions.
“It doesn’t matter what the government’s agenda is or whether a minister jumps up and down 200 times. It won’t help. The government clerk decides,” he said.
According to the ILA, Lahayeb only has a one-year lease instead of the usual three years. The ILA underlined “for one year” in its explanatory letter to underscore that the lease is conditional and that Lahayeb could quickly find himself without the pasturage if he misbehaves.
Elster dismissed the implicit threat as empty.
“It will be impossible to get rid of him now. I could write the book of Chronicles in the time it will take. It’ll be another 30 years and after a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” he said.
“I will tell you exactly what will happen,” he continued. “Everyone will live in peace for a whole year. Then, slowly, a gate will open here and a gate will open there. Cows will enter our pasture. A fire will suddenly start. Drip by drip. It will be a war of attrition. Then he’ll say, ‘I only have 700 dunams for 70 cows. It’s not enough. I need 2,000 dunams.’ And if after a year they try to evict him, he’ll cry out, ‘You’re taking my livelihood.’ Guess who backs down.
“But for a year now, there will be quiet. To give us time to forget. But I won’t forget. I’ve etched it in my mind. I’ll be the only one who won’t forget,” he said.